For Samanta Helou, the music of jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band makes her feel transcendent and reassured, emotions she needed right before meeting her father for the first time in her life. This is the amazing story of her challenging journey and how music got her through it.
The song in this piece is the studio version of “The Rhythm Changes,” off Kamasi Washington’s album The Epic.
The night before I flew to Geneva to meet my father for the first time in my life, I was at a concert.
Kamasi Washington is a jazz saxophonist who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar and legends like Chaka Khan. Tonight, he’s playing with his band at USC.
The stage is crammed with musicians who have known each other since childhood, including his own father. Kamasi steps on stage. A man of immense stature in a black embroidered shirt, turquoise hanging on his neck. Chunky rings on his hands. An imposing air of spirituality. And then he blows his sax.
Air fills his lungs and travels through my body. The musicians join in and play louder. Kamasi nods and signals to the other musicians. His saxophone leads us into another galaxy. I can feel my skin turn into a coat of goosebumps. I transcend.
And I think back to that moment, a year ago, when, out of the blue, I got an email from my father.
The email read:
I will be in the U.S. Middle of next year most probably April May
I will contact you
You see, I’ve never had a relationship with my father. All I know about him is that he’s a Lebanese doctor who at one point dated my mother in Mexico. And he’s the reason that, as proud Mexican woman, I also have Middle Eastern features.
He never came to the United States. Then I heard nothing from him for months. But then, this summer, he told me I could fly to Geneva to meet him. And so I got ready to meet my father, for the first time, at the age of 24.
I bought my ticket, booked my hotel, and exchanged dollars for francs. But as the trip grew closer and closer, I started having doubts.
What was the point? I was already 24 and had a formed identity. What if meeting him caused me to go into crisis? I was dealing with a depression so deep that I felt like a zombie walking through the world. A milky haze enveloped my life. I couldn’t afford a breakdown—emotionally or financially. So the night I went to see Kamasi Washington I was feeling particularly overwhelmed. I was questioning my strength.
Holiness fills the auditorium. The band’s lead singer Patrice Quinn belts, “Our minds, our bodies, our feelings/they change, they alter, they leave us./Somehow, no matter what happens,/I’m here.”
The instruments unite. They are family. They carry in their beings and music a lineage to the ancestors who paved the way for them. They live and breathe togetherness and love. The same togetherness and love I was searching for in my father.
The music reaches a climax. Kamasi is blowing wildly. Patrice is wailing. Sounds emanate from the instruments like colorful brushstrokes dancing in a flurry. The music speaks directly to me. They are telling me “Hey, it’s over, it’s okay.” The music stops. I wipe the wetness off my face. No matter what happens, I’m here.
The next day I board my flight.
I’m looking out as the sun sets over lake Geneva in a state of delirium. I feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness and loneliness. Normally, traveling is an exciting time for me, being in a completely new place, with new people, and new sights. But this time it’s frightening.
In Geneva, people walking the streets give me empty glances and feel like shallow strangers. The antique buildings look imposing and melancholic. Even the sunset seems foreign. I long to be back in Los Angeles. In my neighborhood where I hear Salvadoran ladies gossiping at the corner store. My friends are only blocks away. And I can go to my local bar where everyone knows me. I long to be in my mother’s warm embrace.
But everyone in California is asleep and I’m 6000 miles away. And I am to meet my father the next morning. A complete stranger.
I arrive in my hotel room exhausted. The first thing I hear is music coming from the TV. It sounds like the opening of a Disney princess film. A lush white bed in front of me. A pastry with a note welcoming Ms. Hernandez to the hotel. Marble bathrooms. And a fucking towel warmer! Surreal is the only word I can come up with.
The next morning, as I’m making my way into the elevator to meet my father for breakfast, a million thoughts run through my mind. I hope he cries. I hope he hugs me in a warm embrace. I hope he apologizes for a life of absence. I hope we connect.
I see him standing there. And the first thing I think is: he’s so short! About 5′ 3″. Balding. Thin. His facial features are almost identical to mine. He gives me a tight-lipped smile and a half-ass pat on the back. The first thing he says to me is “How was your flight?” How was your flight?! That’s it?!
A waiter asks what we want to drink. I order a cappuccino. He asks for green tea. I wonder if the waiter has any clue.
The breakfast lasts 52 minutes. I don’t touch my food at all. He doesn’t attempt to explain himself. I have to be the one to ask him “What happened?” He tells me he told my mother he didn’t want a baby. That it was my mother’s decision. He says, “That it’s a difficult situation to be in.” I tell him it’s difficult to grow up without a father. He says that’s probable.
And that’s it. We spend the weekend in superficial conversations about politics, TV shows, and travel. The city grows colder the longer I spend with him. I feel more distant from him than ever before. I’m ready to go home.
And at least I know I have the warmth somewhere on this planet. That people are there, that the music is there to welcome me back. And I remember those moments at the Kamasi concert.
The day after the concert, I interviewed Kamasi and he told me “I hope that I’ve learned enough and done enough to have something that can give insight to the experience of life . . . The music brings people together. It opens up their minds and hearts, and then people do with that what they do with it.”
The music knew I needed it and I let it serve its purpose. And that’s enough for me. No matter what happens, I’m here.
Collage by Samanta Helou
Kamasi Washington’s Photo by Mike Park